Why do the planets orbit the sun? (Beginner)

Why do the planets rotate around the Sun?

First, please note that "rotate" actually is used to describe an celestial body's spin, and "revolve" is used to describe its orbital motion. For example, the Earth completes one rotation about its axis about every 24 hours, but it completes one revolution around the Sun about every 365 days.

Anyway, the basic reason why the planets revolve around, or orbit, the Sun, is that the gravity of the Sun keeps them in their orbits. Just as the Moon orbits the Earth because of the pull of Earth's gravity, the Earth orbits the Sun because of the pull of the Sun's gravity.

Why, then, does it travel in an elliptical orbit around the Sun, rather than just getting pulled in all the way? This happens because the Earth has a velocity in the direction perpendicular to the force of the Sun's pull. If the Sun weren't there, the Earth would travel in a straight line. But the gravity of the Sun alters its course, causing it to travel around the Sun, in a shape very near to a circle. This is a little hard to visualize, so let me give you an example of how to visualize an object in orbit around the Earth, and it's analogous to what happens with the Earth and the Sun.

Imagine Superman is standing on Mt. Everest holding a football. He throws it as hard as he can, which is incredibly hard because he's Superman. Just like if you threw a football, eventually it will fall back down and hit the ground. But because he threw it so hard, it goes past the horizon before it can fall. And because the Earth is curved, it just keeps on going, constantly "falling," but not hitting the ground because the ground curves away before it can. Eventually the football will come around and smack Superman in the back of the head, which of course won't hurt him at all because he's Superman. That is how orbits work, but objects like spaceships and moons are much farther from the Earth than the football that Superman threw. (We're ignoring air resistance with the football example; actual spacecraft must be well above most of a planet's atmosphere, or air resistance will cause them to spiral downward and eventually crash into the planet's surface.) This same situation can be applied to the Earth orbiting the Sun - except now Superman is standing on the Sun (which he can do because he's Superman) and he throws the Earth.

The next question, then, is how did Earth get that velocity, since in real life there's no Superman throwing it. For that, you need to go way back to when the Solar System formed.

This page was last updated on January 31, 2016.

About the Author

Cathy Jordan

Cathy got her Bachelors degree from Cornell in May 2003 and her Masters of Education in May 2005. She did research studying the wind patterns on Jupiter while at Cornell. She is now an 8th grade Earth Sciences teacher in Natick, MA.